2 Lebanese soldiers die in Palestinian refugee camp fighting

1227.jpgLebanese troops inched towards Islamic strongholds in a north Lebanon Palestinian refugee camp Tuesday as mediators hinted at a possible ceasefire deal that includes the disarmament of the Al Qaeda-inspired gunmen.Two Lebanese soldiers became the latest victims of the battle around the Nahr Bared refugee camp near the northern city of Tripoli that began on May 20, security officials said on condition of anonymity for not being authorised to speak to the media. As the battle with the Fateh Islam group continued, mediators hinted at a possible ceasefire deal with the gunmen. According to a Palestinian Muslim cleric who has been acting as mediator, the deal would include a ceasefire, to be followed by the gunmen’s disarmament.

The cleric, Sheik Mohammed Hajj, told the Associated Press he had a “very positive” meeting with Fateh Islam leaders inside the camp Monday but would not give details before a scheduled meeting with the army command on Wednesday.

He earlier told the official Lebanese news agency that the gunmen agreed to conditions of his Palestinian Scholars Association.

The cleric did not offer more details, but the private New TV station said the conditions also include return of refugees, takeover of the camp by other Palestinian factions and Fateh Islam’s dissolution.

Meanwhile, Abu Imad Rifai, a representative of the Palestinian group Islamic Jihad, told Manar television that the progress was made after Fateh Islam “opened the doors for a solution” and accepted to “dissolve”.  The army had said its decision to eliminate Fateh Islam was “final and irreversible”, and the gunmen had pledged to fight to death rather than comply by the army’s request that they surrender.

The fighting in Nahr  Bared comes amid a bitter standoff between the Western-backed government of Prime Minister Fuad Siniora and the opposition led by the Hizbollah group.

Arab League Secretary-General Amr Musa began a three-day visit to Beirut on Tuesday to hold meetings with rival politicians in an attempt to help find solution to the political crisis.

“Negative winds are blowing in every direction. The Lebanese, and we all, must help to protect Lebanon from these dangerous winds,” Musa said upon arrival at Beirut’s airport.

In Tuesday’s fighting at Nahr Bared, a barrage of six shells at a time was heard as the army pounded the camp.

Black and white plumes of smoke were seen rising from inside the camp.

State-run National News Agency (NNA) said three Lebanese helicopters fired 12 rockets at suspected Fateh Islam positions in the camp.

Meanwhile, Lebanon’s top military magistrate Rashid Mezher issued formal arrest warrants for nine suspected gunmen who were detained earlier this month in the town of Bar Elias in the eastern Bekaa Valley, NNA said. The agency did not say to which group the nine belonged but said they comprise six Lebanese, two Syrians and a Saudi.

Tuesday’s deaths of two soldiers brought the army’s fatalities to 74 since fighting first erupted, when police raiding suspects in a bank robbery clashed with Fateh Islam in a Tripoli neighbourhood.

At least 60 gunmen were killed in the early days of the fighting, with officials saying many more died later on.

The gunmen have given a much lower death toll, but contact with them recently has not been possible. At least 20 civilians were reported killed.

The army has made steady gains on the ground in recent days. On occasion, it leveled top floors of buildings to root out snipers, and engaged in door-to-door combat to try to break the stubborn resistance of the gunmen who operate from behind fortified positions and target the military with rockets and booby traps.

The battle to drive the Islamic gunmen out has led to significant damage to parts of the camp, once home to some 30,000 Palestinian refugees. Only about 5,000 remain inside, after most residents fled to the nearby Beddawi refugee camp.

An amateur video obtained by Associated Press Television News on Tuesday showed major destruction in largely deserted residential neighbourhoods.

Debris from collapsed walls and balconies littered the narrow alleys, covered with ripped electricity wires.

Shells and shrapnel holes peppered some buildings. A burnt car and a parked pickup truck with a collapsed wall resting on it lay on one deserted street.

The video, taken at different periods between May 27 and June 10, showed very few residents. Six men were seen gathering around a hose to fill up cans with water. In one house, a family was sitting on the floor for a meal.

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